By Anote Ajeluorou (from Port Harcourt)
The 5th edition of Garden City Literary Festival (GCLF) 2012 organised by Rainbow Book Club had the promotion of women and women issues, especially from the literary point of view and their impact on society, as its main focus. With ‘Women in Literature’ as its general theme, this year’s festival gave women writers and critics of feminine issues long-sought sparing opportunity to re-examine some contentious issues in men and women relationships, especially those of equal rights that have continued to dodge both sexes for ages.
On Day Five of the festival, the topic ‘Women and love in African literature’ came up for discussion, which held at the Banquet Hall of Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt. With foremost literary critic and university teacher, Prof. Charles Nnolim as lead discussant, the stage was set for an explosive engagement. Nnolim also brought with him a baggage of witticism to bear on his submissions. Others on the panel were Prof. Julie Okoh, Dr. Julie Umukoro and Mrs. Sophia Obi, with Mazi Uzo moderating.
While giving a general overview of the subject matter, Nnolim noted that the word ‘love’ is the most abused word in the English language, saying its application could sometimes be absurd, like saying, ‘I love you’ (to a woman); ‘I love my mum’; I live yam’; I love my pet’ and so on. For the classical Greeks, Nnolim said ‘love’ had three broad meanings: ‘Agape’ – love of God or divine love’; ‘Philos’ (philosophy) – love of knowledge and ‘Eros’ – romantic love or the love between man and woman. Nnolim also traced the history of romantic love in ancient Greece and Western literature, taking into account Paris’ abduction of Helen that caused the infamous Trojan War that lasted 10 years with disastrous consequences for the Greeks and Troy.
In the same vein, Nnolim said fantasy, illusory and romantic love from the West became the stuff Onitsha Market Literature was made of, which he said is un-African, saying, “In Onitsha Market or Pamphlet Literature, love is mainly sexual, forgetting that sexuality is not love, for one can engage in sex without love”.
Nnolim concluded that romantic love in Western literature is equated with madness as it acts without reason and often in extremes. However, the erudite critic stated that love in African literature, and indeed, love in African setting is usually regulated “by a set of life’s realities and practicalities such as taboo, mythology, polygamy, high bride price, ethnicity, the caste system” among others.
He also noted, “Love in African tradition is always meant to end in marriage and procreation. And in the marriage, many factors control excesses or fantasies about love such as co-wife jealousies, childlessness, the abiku or ogbanje children for those who are fecund, bearing only daughters in a son-hungry society, plus the caste system”.
He cited such works as Flora Nwapa’s Efuru (mythology), Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine (mythology), Onuora Nzekwu’s Wande of Noble Wood (mythology), Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter (polygamy and male philandering), Isidore Okpewho’s The Victims (co-wife jealousy), John Munonye’s Obi (childlessness), Chkwuemeka Ike’s Toads for Super (ethnic origin) and Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease (caste system) as examples. He, however, noted that Africa’s educated women usually find it problematic to fit into African concept of love, as they are imbued with European-type love that is romanticized and glamourized, saying this usually brings conflicts in marriage, especially in polygamy, where the man is not responding with equal zeal.
Nnolim concluded his submission thus, “While love in European literature is idealized, romanticized and depicted as ‘tragic madness’, love in the Nigerian, nay African soil, is more practical, more pragmatic and less chivalric; it’s more cautious, more mundane, more earth-bound, more rational and less glamourized because it is controlled and stabilized by its fundamental unique existence”.
FOR Prof. Okoh, a dramatist and gender activist, there was a need to look at the causes of love ending disastrously in African literature, and queried, “Are the men giving love back to women the same way women give them? If men love or return women’s love, will the world not be peaceful? It’s the same pattern of unrequited love recurring; women are crying so that men and women can live happily. For women writers, men should slow down and live together happily”.
Okoh further argued that polygamy was no longer necessary in the 21st century and wondered why African men still held on to it. She noted that the conditions that favoured polygamy in previous ages like economic needs that required many hands for the farms were no longer in existence, saying the economic system had changed to that of machinery and automation.
But Umukoro, another gender expert, took a completely different position, one that could alarm many women, when she affirmed that polygamy needed not be discounted yet as many ills in Africa society were associated with its discontinuance as a socially regulating mechanism. Although she is not in a polygamous relationship, Umukoro further contended that condemning everything African just so as to embrace European or Western ideas was wrong. She, therefore, sued for a re-examination of polygamy as a socially regulating concept for social behavior, noting that so long a set of codes for its application could be devised, it was all right to encourage it. She further said modern-day Africans were not practicing monogamy either, with many married men now having many concubines in place of polygamy.
Umukoro stated, “I look at issues from a global perspective. We should be talking about African ideology, things that set us apart. Polygamy is African; there are codes attached to it; then the Europeans came to dilute it. In those days, there were ethics, dignity, code of conduct to control polygamy, which, when violated, attracted sanctions. I say to you, we are not practicing monogamy either; monogamy will leave many women in the lurch, without husbands.
“We should find out how our forefathers practiced polygamy, why it worked for them. Most men who claim to be monogamists practice polygamy; they still keep women outside, a situation that makes the wife back home miserable as a result. But if you control polygamy, and marshal out how it’s practiced, there will be no infidelity, which could bring diseases to the family, like HIV/AIDS”.
But Okoh countered by saying that polygamy isn’t exclusively African practice, as other societies had also practiced it. She, however, reaffirmed that time had overtaken the concept of polygamy and that it was no longer in vogue because of modernity.
Obi contended that while love is a universal thing, African women felt they have been subdued by the men who see them as domestic hands. Moreover, a woman protesting such injustice is usually seen as a deviant. She wondered aloud, “who set up the standards that encouraged polygamy in the first place? Did the women like it? Were they all right with it? These are the issues we must examine for healthy relationships to thrive”.
WHILE making further intervention, Nnolim said the squabble over equality was sometimes laughable as patriarchy was important and has come to be accepted worldwide. He noted that no matter how much of a feminist a woman was, she would still bear a man’s name, as she could not be called, ‘Juliana Agnes’, for instance. He, however, said the world was tending towards a new theory called ‘accommodationism’ for the promotion of love and unity within the family, whether monogamy or polygamy.
He stressed that until the African man began to see the woman as co-equal, there might be no peace in the home, especially these days when women have stepped outdoors and were beginning to venture into areas traditionally the preserve of men. He also stated that city life exercised a constraint on polygamy, as the means to accommodate many women unlike in the villages where a small hut was enough to house everybody.
For Nnolim also, the weapon the world has given women is education, and advised that women should get more and more educated so men would not look down on them.
But Umukoro still maintained her stance in allowing people of different persuasions to stick to what works for them. She said as much as women were against discrimination and support parity, certain social forces should not be discounted like polygamy, which she stated was deep-rooted in African consciousness, saying that incursion of foreign religions has complicated things for the African man.
She summed up, “There are ethics governing society, whether for Christians, Muslims or animists or traditional religions”, and that one set of ethics should not “be used to unseat another; we Africans are eclectic. Our society has not given us a way forward. Christians marry one wife but the men have side-kicks outside. A lot of things have been diluted. A woman must have a say in things that concern her life”.
Umukoro cautioned against a myopic view of issues and advised that since religion was now playing a major role in love relationships, ethics within a given religion should be allowed to govern such relationships.
Feminine expert and literary critic, Prof. Chinyere Opara contended that “our society today is as confused as it is sexist”, saying polygeny (one woman marrying more than one husband, as currently practiced in some Western societies) was another way of looking at issues. She, however, argued that ‘feme terrible’, as recorded in Madam Bovary, where the woman becomes the tormentor of the man, was another way of looking at men and women’s relationships.